Quick: What’s a good adjective for Nicolas Cage’s screen presence? Mercurial, perhaps? Volcanic? Volatile?
How about mundane, schlubby, average? Not the page we’d think to turn to in our Roget’s Thesaurus.
Yet here Cage is, channeling his inner drabness to chillingly comic effect in Kristoffer Borgli’s “Dream Scenario.” As Paul Matthews (heck, even the name is drab), a college professor at nowhere famous, he performs his job with perfect mediocrity, and seems a fairly mediocre husband and dad, too. With his graying beard, wire-rimmed specs and shiny bald spot, Cage’s Paul is the guy in the room you ignore.
Until, suddenly, you can’t. Because something weird starts happening. Paul starts appearing in people’s dreams. Everyone’s dreams.
The premise is delicious — and precarious. It recalled for me the setup in a very different movie, “Yesterday,” where only one guy on Earth remembers the Beatles. It makes for a fantastic beginning, but you immediately worry how they’ll manage to keep it going.
But Borgli, the Norwegian writer-director making his English-language debut here (Ari Aster co-produces), is aiming for a broader statement about the nature of fame. And while the topic, which he’s broached before, may not be original, it’s ripe for exploration in the right hands — especially with an actor as inventive and unpredictable as Cage. Fame can be intoxicating, this film is saying, but it can and probably will turn on you in an instant, unless you’re Taylor Swift (OK, we added that last part).
We begin on an autumn day by a suburban swimming pool, where Paul is raking leaves near his teen daughter. Scary things start dropping from the heavens, and suddenly the girl is grabbed by an unknown force and lifted, screaming, into the sky. Dad? He does nothing to help.
It’s only the girl’s dream. But then there are more. Paul and his patient wife, Janet (Julianne Nicholson, reliably excellent) run into someone at the theater, and she too has dreamed about Paul. At a dinner party, several guests discover to their shock that they’ve been dreaming about the same person. Yep, Paul.
What’s happening? On campus, Paul’s students, who mostly chat among themselves during his unremarkable lectures on evolutionary biology, start listening — they’re dreaming about him, too.
In many of these dreams, Paul stands by, inexplicably, as others experience peril — slithering alligators, for example. But in real life, for once, Paul has the floor — a man who until now seethed with frustration over his unrealized ambitions as others succeeded. Now, everyone is interested in him.
Borgli never stops to analyze the science of this bizarre development, and frankly, Paul doesn’t either. He takes a meeting with a snarky group of branding experts (led by Michael Cera, perfectly cast) who want to market him up the wazoo. They can get him a Sprite commercial! Well, Paul doesn’t want that — he just wants a book deal for his biology research. But his ears perk up at the idea of an endorsement from Barack Obama. (“I know Malia,” one of these young professionals says.)
One young woman even lets on to Paul that in her dreams, the two have great sex. This is too stunning for the schlubby Paul to ignore, especially when she invites him home to recreate the dream. Needless to say, it doesn’t go as well in real life. In fact, the dénoument is utterly, agonizingly humiliating.
And then, everyone’s dreams change. Suddenly Paul is the one causing harm. His students, terrified, don’t want to see him anymore. He gets sent home from a dinner with friends. He can’t even sit in a coffee shop and read a book without a fellow diner spitting on his food.
As for the branding consultants, well, they inform Paul that Obama is off the table — but hey, they could get him time with Joe Rogan or maybe Tucker Carlson.
We won’t spoil the ending, but let’s just make the obvious point that Borgli is not making a rom-com — is there a word for “horror-com”? We walk away from this funny, sad, scary film acutely reminded that if fame has two sides, one of them is pretty darned horrible.
And perhaps, as you walk home from the multiplex this time, you might even revel in the fact that nobody’s paying attention. Obscurity can be underrated.
“Dream Scenario,” an A24 release, has been rated R by the Motion Picture Association “for language, violence and some sexual content. “ Running time: 102 minutes. Three stars out of four.